Not a hope in Hades

This (PDF) is explosive stuff – and, as often happens, some of the smallest and dullest details are the most powerful.

You asked for further advice on substance and handling, following my letter of 5 December, including with a view to PMQs on 7 December.

“Substance and handling” here being Civil Service-ese for the nature of an issue (its substance) and how to deal with it (handling). The issue, in this case, is possible British complicity in US “Rendition” and “Extraordinary Rendition” operations. (This kind of thing, in other words.)

The banal sentence italicised above tells us a surprising number of things. It tells us that

  • the Foreign Office wrote to Blair’s office about ‘rendition’ on 5 December
  • Blair’s office wrote back asking for more information, with a view to briefing Blair before Prime Minister’s Questions on the 7th, and
  • the Foreign Office complied, supplying the required information (‘substance’) and guidance (‘handling’) in time for Blair’s date with the Commons.

The Foreign Office document identified two requests for assistance with ‘rendition’ flights in 1998(!); although one of these was granted, the flight did not take place. But this is not, of course, an exhaustive list:

The papers we have unearthed so far suggest there could be more such cases. The Home Office, who lead, are urgently examining their files, as are we.

As for ‘handling’, here the Foreign Office is at its most scrupulous:

If the US were to act contrary to its international obligations, then co-operation with such an act would also be illegal if we knew of the circumstances. This would be the case, for example, in any cooperation over an Extraordinary Rendition without human rights assurances. Conversely, cooperation with a “legal” Rendition, that met the domestic law of both of the main countries involved, and was consistent with their international obligations, would be legal. Where we have no knowledge of illegality but allegations are brought to our attention, we ought to make reasonable enquiries.

For presentational purposes, the document concludes, it’s best not to get bogged down in arguments about actual cases:

we now cannot say that we have received no such requests for the use of UK territory or air space for “Extraordinary Rendition”. It does remain true that “we are not aware of the use of UK territory or air space for the purposes of “Extraordinary Rendition””. But we think we should now try to move the debate on from the specifics of rendition, extraordinary or otherwise, and focus people instead on the Rice’s [sic] clear assurance that all US activities are consistent with their domestic and international obligations and never include the use of torture.

It does remain true that “we are not aware…” – but if we keep going through the paperwork we might just become aware, any time now. And it wouldn’t do just to stop looking: where allegations are brought to our attention, we ought to make reasonable enquiries. Better to move the debate on.

So far, so Sir Humphrey. But remember those dates. Blair, we can reasonably assume, was forearmed with these notes on ‘substance’ and ‘handling’ when he took Prime Minister’s Questions on 7 December.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): The United States Secretary of State said yesterday that “extraordinary rendition” had been conducted in co-operation with European Governments. To what extent, therefore, have the Government co-operated in the transport of terrorist suspects to Afghanistan and elsewhere, apparently for torture purposes?The Prime Minister: First, let me draw a very clear distinction indeed between the idea of suspects being taken from one country to another and any sense whatever that ourselves, the United States or anyone condones the use of torture. Torture cannot be justified in any set of circumstances at all. The practice of rendition as described by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been American policy for many years. We have not had such a situation here, but that has been American policy for many, many years. However, it must be applied in accordance with international conventions, and I accept entirely Secretary of State Rice’s assurance that it has been.

Mr. Kennedy: Given that assurance, can the Prime Minister therefore explain why the published evidence shows that almost 400 flights have passed through 18 British airports in the period of concern? When was he as Prime Minister first made aware of that policy, and when did he approve it?

The Prime Minister: In respect of airports, I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman is referring to.

Set aside for the moment scenarios in which the Foreign Office memo is a backdated forgery, or was written on 7 December but delivered the next day, or was delivered on 7 December but overlooked when Blair was being briefed. Blair asked for guidance on ‘substance’ and ‘handling’ on the issue of British complicity with ‘rendition’ flights, and he got it.

I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman is referring to.

That’s a big claim. It’s not “I don’t know anything about those allegations”; it’s not even “I’ve never heard those allegations”. It’s more like “I don’t know what you’re talking about”. Is there any possibility that Blair was telling the truth at this point? I’m trying to be fair, but I really can’t see it.

Later the same day, the PM’s official spokesman made a clarification:

Asked what exactly the Prime Minister had meant when he had replied that “I don’t know what you are referring to,” when asked by Charles Kennedy, at PMQs today, about CIA flights through the UK, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that Charles Kennedy had made an assertion which the Prime Minister didn’t recognise. If journalists had looked back over what we had said all week we had made it clear that we did not believe that we were involved in this story. That had been our position all along and the Prime Minister was simply repeating that position.

So, compare and contrast.

Briefing notes prepared for Blair, 7/12/05: we now cannot say that we have received no such requests for the use of UK territory or air space for “Extraordinary Rendition”

Blair, 7/12/05: I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman is referring to.

Blair’s spokesman, 7/12/05: we did not believe that we were involved … That had been our position all along

It’s always the cover-up that gets you.

Don’t you think he looks tired?


  1. Rob Jubb
    Posted 20 January 2006 at 14:26 | Permalink | Reply

    What I think is particularly interesting is that it makes it clear that there are circumstances under which non-extraordinary rendition could be illegal – simply because detention outside the legal process is illegal, or because even though under US law certain forms of treatment are not illegal, they are under various international agreements – meaning that it is possible that the case mentioned in the memo broke the law.

  2. Brian B.
    Posted 24 January 2006 at 22:46 | Permalink | Reply

    Fascinating and useful stuff: thank you.

    For one minor but just possibly revealing thing about the FCO letter, please see (“Who wrote that FCO advice to No. 10 on rendition?”).

    On the question of the legality or otherwise of non-extraordinary rendition, I would be very surprised if it could be lawful anywhere, at any rate in any western country, for American citizens in another country to take a person in that country into custody despite having no legal powers to do so abroad, and to transport that person against his or her will to another country without the knowledge or approval of the government of the first country and without any kind of due process (extradition, deportation by court or executive order, etc.), even if there was no question of torture at the end of it. Yet it seems that our ministers have been speaking publicly as if such a thing was quite normal and unobjectionable, even if we don’t go in for it ourselves! Shami Chakrabarti of ‘Liberty’ (in television interviews) and others seem to me fully justified in describing it as kidnapping.


  3. Phil
    Posted 24 January 2006 at 22:55 | Permalink | Reply

    Brian – good point. That “if everything about a rendition were legal, then it would all be legal” sentence is a curious piece of handwashing, isn’t it? It’s a bit like saying “if burglary could be carried out without breaking and entering it would cease to be a crime”, and then having that statement leant on as if it conjured into existence a class of non-criminal burglaries. (I’ve been immersed in formal logic for most of the day, for work-related reasons, so I’m particularly conscious of the difference between “some A are B” and “all A which exist are B”.)

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